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Retinal scans provide a window into human aging

Scientists have long known that changes in the eye physiognomy, particularly in the blood vessel-rich tissue in the retina, could offer important information about aging processes. Now, a team of researchers led by the Buck Institute for Research on Aging has devised a new method to use retinal scans in order to provide a non-invasive, inexpensive, accurate method to track human aging.

“This type of imaging could be really valuable in tracking the efficacy of interventions aimed at slowing the aging process,” said senior author Pankaj Kapahi, an expert in aging at the Buck Institute. “The results suggest that potentially, in less than one year we should be able to determine the trajectory of aging with 71 percent accuracy by noting discernable changes in the eyes of those being treated, providing an actionable evaluation of gero-protective therapeutics.” 

According to the researchers, since changes in the eyes are less susceptible to daily fluctuations than biomarkers in the blood that could be easily influenced by diet or current infections, retinal scans are more reliable as indicators of aging. Moreover, previous studies have shown that changes in the eye accompany aging and age-related diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), diabetic retinopathy, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, as well as other health conditions, including early signs of AIDS, chronic high blood pressure, or developing eye tumors.

However, since subtle changes in the retina’s small blood vessels can often go undetected even by the most sophisticated instruments, the experts collaborated with Google Research to train a deep learning computer model using the EyePACS data set that involves over 10,000 patients and applying it to patients from the UK Biobank.

“Our study emphasizes the value of longitudinal data for analyzing accurate aging trajectories. Through the EyePACS longitudinal dataset involving multiple scans from individual people over time, our results show a more accurate positive prediction ratio for two consecutive visits of individual rather than random, time-matched individuals,” explained lead author Sara Ahadi, a senior computational biologist at Alkahest, a biopharmaceutical company focusing on age-related diseases. 

In addition, the scientists performed a genome-wide association study (GWAS) to establish the genetic basis for an aging clock relying on retinal scans, which they call eyeAge, and discovered several key genes that contribute to aging and age-related diseases. “It would be really informative to understand how these genes, which are already linked to other age-related diseases, are affecting the changes we are seeing in the eye. This is human data that provides targets for potential treatments for age-related diseases. The fact that we might be able to track their efficacy in such a low cost, non-invasive way is a huge plus,” Kapahi concluded.

The study is published in the journal eLife. 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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